Full disclosure: I was invited to Willa’s to taste their menu on a media reservation. I received a complimentary meal for 2 during my visit. These opinions are my own and do not represent those of Willa’s.
Willa’s is now open in North Hyde Park at 1700 Fig Street. For years this neighborhood has been dubbed, “up and coming” by city leaders and people who moved into the area.
My favorite upstart coffee shop and roaster in Tampa is not too far around the corner so I am well acquainted with the neighborhood – taking numerous long walks in the past (and sometimes scooter rides) from Cass Street down in between a haircut and a stop at the Cass Street Deli.
After COVID lockdowns though and a long year of trying to avoid getting sick, the neighborhood looks different though and almost unrecognizable, like much of Tampa its growing. Construction is still at the end, but regardless of it, Willa’s has turned a rustic building into a new dining establishment that is both charming and not stuffy, great ambiance is not always easy to come by in Tampa.
A quick scan inside and I saw local bartenders and industry members, families, business meetings, and South Tampa locals dining. I think you could dress casual or up for this kind of restaurant, depending on the mood. The restaurant is operating a limited capacity due to COVID-19, but I still opted to sit outside because I’m just not comfortable dining in yet. They were more than accommodating and the outside dining is still charming, especially on a chilly and windy day.
Willa’s has plenty of industry experience involved in its creation, with Nate Siegel having a background at Mise en Place, a Tampa staple as well as a few restaurants in New York and it shows. Every detail at Willa’s is carefully analyzed and approached from the menus, the bathrooms, the cocktails, it is obvious that this restaurant is not built by amateurs.
His partner, Merrin Jenkins, also clearly has had a great influence on this restaurant with a heavy background in non-profits, you can see the organizational structure here flows greatly, with attentive servers who seem genuinely happy and customers clearly being attended to around with care.
Soon they will open Willa’s Provisions in the same, a cafe and shop that could be attractive to those looking for more lunch options in the area, which have been pretty limited in the past with the exception of Cass Street Deli and of course the always great drive-up Chicago Paulie’s on Howard. The sign of any growing neighborhood are cafes and breweries, and I’m sure students from the University of Tampa nearby will appreciate more choices.
We decided to start right off with some cocktails. First I tried the Hotel National ($12) made with a house rum blend and stiggins’ fancy pineapple. Excellent blend. The rum was so well-mixed you couldn’t taste it, but you knew it was there from the coming buzz.
Like many newer restaurants, Willa’s is also doing cocktails on draft called Grandfather Grocer ($13) and I enjoyed one with tequila although it is also available with gin or rum, also excellent.
To get some carbs in, we ordered the Whipped Ricotta Toast ($11) recommended by our waitress, made with Florida honey and roasted hazelnuts on sourdough. The bread is apparently made in-house, and it tastes phenomenal, a light and airy taste. I actually want just a big thing of sourdough bread to enjoy on every visit to Willa’s. Every bite was perfect.
The dish itself feels like it belongs more on a lunch menu or brunch menu, but regardless it is delicious.
Next was the Cold Vermicelli Noodles ($15), I don’t normally do salads unless forced but this one was grabbing my eye. When you look at the menu at Willa’s for the first time, understanding the actual theme of the restaurant can be a bit confusing, so do not be afraid to ask questions to your server. My understanding is that the menu is a mix of strengths from the chef and staff that has been carefully tested and tried, but still evolving.
Back to the salad, it comes with cabbage, jalapeno coconut crunch, crispy shallots, toasted peanuts, and a cilantro vinaigrette. Easy to share, so please do. You can also add proteins if you are simply interested in a salad for your visit for an upcharge.
My first impression of this salad was something of a Chinese Chicken Salad or the like from California Pizza Kitchen or Cheesecake Factory and although it shared some characteristics, this salad was hundreds of times better, simply every bite was delectable. It would be great to have this salad as a smaller option or as an add-on to a meal because it is so good. I am in love with salad and I do not say that very often.
It has a very refreshing and yet complex flavor, the jalapeno coconut crunch on top just makes it so enjoyable in every bite. I am sure health-conscious South Tampa residents gravitate towards the salads and I am sure they must love this one because I sure do.
There are a number of main-course options, but I decided to try the main course Rotisserie Chicken ($18) as the restaurant claims it is the signature item at Willa’s. It is an “all-natural, free-range chicken, half-chicken” that is slow-roasted and topped with salsa verde that is almost like a chimichurri sauce.
What you get is a nice helping of chicken that is very moist and flavorful. It is certainly quite delicious and the skin is excellent. Personally, I think I prefer a Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken if I had to choose, but I think I would like this chicken from Willa’s in a sandwich. The portion might be big enough to share for 2 people, but certainly nothing more than that.
What makes the meal though is the sides and they are ala carte at Willa’s. They are $6 each or 3 for $15. We ordered the Roasted Mushrooms and Macaroni au Gratin. These portions are also enough to share for 2 or maybe even 3.
By far we were in love with the mushrooms served with thyme, rosemary, and garlic butter. Every last bite was perfection. I have always liked mushrooms, but I feel like they are usually not done right at restaurants for some strange reason and Willa’s just kills this dish.
The Macaroni au Gratin was tasty and certainly cheesy enough, it just needs a little more salt and could benefit from perhaps aged cheeses added to the mix. I enjoyed it overall. We were absolutely stuffed at this point and had to get a box, but dinner was still ahead.
I enjoyed an Aperol Spritz ($12) with dinner and it was finely made. What’s not to love about the Florida Sun and some Aperol? Can very much see myself enjoying one for brunch one day when they expand to an earlier schedule as well.
I had a chance to chat for a minute with Chef Zakari Davila and apparently he is a Tampa native who ended up working in kitchens in New York and ended up back down here during the pandemic. Fate brought him by Willa’s and before you know it, he found a job. He mentioned he is still fine-tuning the menu and had a very ambitious air to him, personally I feel like this is a very solid menu for a new restaurant and that good things are ahead.
After quite the meal, for dessert I enjoyed a well-made espresso from King State Coffee and a Caramel Banana Pudding ($11) made with vanilla whipped cream and a honey graham cracker, apparently made by an in-house patisserie chef. I was not ready for how absolutely delicious dessert was going to be.
I also will admit I have been turned off to desserts in Tampa, just because so many places are underwhelming, totally not the case here. What a well-thought out and delicious end to this meal. I cannot recommend it enough.
In many ways, Willa’s feels like it captures upscale dining at a price that is still not quite South Tampa levels and more neighborhood and middle class friendly and I think much more of that is needed in Tampa. In a time of soaring rent prices for this town, here is a place that is putting everything it has into making great food that you could actually afford to visit and unfortunately that is not being targeted enough.
My waitress Rachael was simply excellent too. Talk about world-class service. The world has been so hard on restaurant workers this past year and I can’t imagine anything tougher than working in a new restaurant, but the personal touch was present everywhere and it is appreciated.
By the time I made my leave, the restaurant was filled with customers and I have to say I feel like great things are in the future for Willa’s. I recommend it and plan to go back in the future.
Willa’s. 1700 W Fig St, Tampa, FL 33606. (813) 519-4552. willastampa.com